TORONTO — JIAS Toronto celebrated its 85th anniversary last month with a concert at Leah Posluns Theatre featuring the talents of former JIAS clients.
Seen performing at the JIAS concert is sister and brother, Julia and Alexander Mirzoev, while father, Mikhail, turns the pages for his son.
Called A Journey Around the World Through Music and the Art, the concert featured a wide variety of entertainment, including traditional Jewish melodies, contemporary Hebrew songs, jazz, classical music, ancient Ladino tunes, martial arts and ballroom dancing.
Joanna Sasson Morrison, who is responsible for community integration at JIAS, said that in planning its anniversary event, the organization wanted to do something that “acknowledged the immigrants’ arrival in a way that the story would come from them.”
The concert also included video clips of immigrants and culminated with the première of the agency’s new video, One Community for All: The Heritage of JIAS Toronto.
On display in the lobby was a photographic exhibit prepared by four teens who participate in JIAS’s youth group.
Janis Roth, JIAS executive director, said that the exhibit portrayed the teens views on beginning a new life. “Showed from the “I” point of view, the pictures tell a story of what it means to re-establish themselves.
“One teen had a picture of a gazelle climbing a mountain, and said that being an immigrant is like climbing a mountain.”
It is significant, Roth said, that everyone who took part in the evening, produced by David Waldman, spent a lot of time at rehearsals. “They are busy looking for work and getting settled [in their new homes] but they found the time to help make our evening a success. They put a lot of themselves into it. David, who also volunteered his time, had a vision of the event, and he met with the entertainers. It was wonderful.”
A message that came out over and over, Roth said, was that JIAS has always been the gateway to immigration. “It is there to greet and assist, and it was obvious from the energy in the room that its tradition of caring and support is still very strong.”
In the commemorative journal distributed to all guests, Jane Katkova, who came to Canada in 1992, said, “Immigration is never easy. You don’t know how to connect to this new world. You’re surrounded by different trees, driving on unknown streets, seeing unfamiliar faces. You need a place to seek advice and a smile. That’s what JIAS does.”
Roth said that JIAS’s role has changed over the years. “Eighty-five years ago, its role was all about settlement – assisting with food and shelter. The focus now is getting people connected with the community. Without that, we would have a disengaged, unaffiliated group. If we offer more when they arrive, the [community benefits.]
Sharon Cohen, president of JIAS Toronto, said in the commemorative journal that the immigrants themselves have also changed over the years. “Most of today’s immigrants have applied as skilled workers, and are generally well educated, compared with the previous waves of immigrants, many of whom were refugees arriving under duress.”
Roth said that although a lot of people prepare for their immigration ahead of time, when they arrive it is still a huge shock. “That is why our help is so important.
“[We have found] that recently, immigrants are determined early on to become part of the community. They have expectations, and assume that the Jewish community has programs for their family.”
Roth said that one of “my great JIAS” moments was when one of the settlement workers in the office who is from Mexico spoke to an immigrant couple in fluent Yiddish. “They needed to find a common language, and Yiddish was it.”
Sasson Morrison said that JIAS encourages immigrants to maintain their own culture while, at the same time, crossing over to the community at large. “The focus is about becoming part of a bigger community that has respect and place for everyone.”
Past president Vickie Dombrovsky said in the commemorative journal that immigration is essential. “As the baby boom generation ages and birth numbers dwindle, immigration within all communities is important to build a stronger Canadian society. The established Jewish community must recognize how vital newcomers are to their own survival – and must learn to accept them and include them in their own lives.”
In the video, there were three families celebrating Shabbat, each in their own way,” Sasson Morrison said. “One Shabbat can be reflected in three ways.”